KATIE JEAN SHINKLE | The Mercy Method
Dirt City, USA. Search-and-rescue crew. A giant clam, four-feet wide, pried open by strong winds. A hinged mouth is a kind of monster.
A red flag day, not from waves, but from thousands of jellyfish that rain from the sky, a beach covering, a windshield covering, sloppy against windows, stop signs, and traffic lights.
In the strawberry fields, the following are found with a different kind of search, a different kind of rescue: a 2,200 pound starfish, a nearly decapitated sea otter, the largest mimic octopus on world record, and a narwhal with its horn neatly broken off. Berry season is over weeks before schedule.
Barnacles clamp onto bicycles left outside, fill gutters, line screen doors like cicadas. An infestation that grows from things to people. Lie too long on the beach and they adhere to the bottoms of your feet, burrowing like tics. They show up in ears and anuses, in belly-buttons and eyelids. When there is enough sunlight to see through the waters of the seasky, a splash of anemones focuses. Rose bulb and goldenrod, vanilla bean and tye-dye blue, red-eyed and green glowing with a puffed-out, breast-like bubble tip.
After the jellyfish, an influx of pearl oysters like sheets of hail.
When another part of the seasky opens, coral reef which was once a brilliant array, dead. It hangs dangerously close to the barrier between seasky and landsea, as if any second it, too, will give way. Trumpet fish, known for their ability to change color to avoid predation, are simply a gray, darting in and out of the coral with no chance of survival.
A lone barracuda, seven-feet long, is sighted in the sky off a main beach front, following a group of children, mistaking the glint of their neon bathing suits as prey. An opportunistic fish. What it doesn’t understand is that it will fall to its death for its lust, darting through the atmosphere. Videos capture its zoochosis, a battle of self in the confines of a seasky it doesn’t understand.
The seasky is slow to come on. And then, all at once. Pink in the morning, sailor’s warning. Pink at night. A sick pleasure, the calm of morning when no longer morning. Deciphering between the two is impossible these days. Color on color, a horizon of color until the bleeding blending creates anew. Today, the official beginning of a season they no longer understand as every season is the same, the landsea as warm as winter as summer or spring. All shadow and light in Dirt City is déjà vu, familiar, historical. The tall beach pine trees, naked and skinny, molded on the tops from the seasky, sway there in the apparitional luminosity.
With change, comes a fight to the death. In the latest research, Dirt City has jumped to number three in the state, number eight in the country, for violence. How anything can move and grow properly now. Everything trapped inside of its own fear. When you believe everything is bad, how can it get worse? Dirt City and its sea salt. The seasky at odds with itself. Volatile and placid. There are pockets, too, of no salt, but the majority of the seasky is filled with salt so dense it destroys everything it touches. The pockets of no salt are a mystery. It is in these pockets where things die the fastest. Everything always falling. A thunderstorm over the landsea no longer simple, carries with it what was once living. Basements flood with schools of fish. The smallest hammerhead shark on record bucking around the base of a staircase, trying desperately to find a way out with a knowledge that it is no longer in its natural habitat, pissed off because it is going to die from lack of the things it needs to live.
Speaking of survival. All the creatures in the seasky are just as confused as the humans. Their animalistic brains in an ever-growing environmental shift do what their instincts tell them to do. It is as if the landsea and the seasky have an intelligence and communication all their own, under constant surveillance. The landsea releases big funnels of surge from itself to the seasky. There are hundreds of videos in existence, reaching millions of viewers across the globe, a funnel in the middle of a horizon, gush-water and animal life, plant life, fish life swirling within the tornado feeding the seasky from the landsea. At once, it begins. At once, done. Each video under one minute. Experts explain these funnels feeding the sky water and life are happening during unprecedented storms, but every sky in every video is as sunny as any sky can be. As fast as a video disappears, ten more appear.
Heat plays tricks with the eyes, and then eyes play tricks with eyes. You, Aggs, are reported missing. You, Aggs, approach the beach, the strongest waves so far away. You look beyond the first sandbar to the second and then the third, all visible, as if you are already out there. There you are in a mix of seasky fury. The water crushing the sand. Blur. Everything endlessly. You hear dolphins in the distance above. You run faster and the weight crushes. Not a soul in sight sans the image of the lone fisherman, even then only a shadow dot on the sand so far away, sitting on an overturned five gallon bucket where he has sat for years in the same spot all day every day. The fisherman is the only one who refuses to fear what occupies the sky, what floats in the water, what rots on land. A string of supper, of breakfast and snacks, too. He will talk of you later, but not yet. In this moment the dolphin song is somber. A mother in mourning over her dead child who dropped from the seasky yesterday in town. The dolphin is looking for her calf. She realizes what maternal loss she has suffered.
You step out into the water, cold to your shins. You cannot escape the sad song of grief, low trill and weeping throat. Her great shadow above casts on the water in front of you as she passes, blocking out the sun, any cheer. You watch the minnows swarm and retreat, swiftly change directions in the coming darkness. Behind her in the sky, two longer, thinner shadows, her sons, the calf’s brothers, follow her as if she, too, will fall from the them to the road below. The smallest black eyes. A mother’s mourning song. You let the sound live inside of you. You watch the shadows on the water pass over you because you cannot look up, you cannot examine the grief too closely.
A two red flag day on the beach. You know what this means. You grew up amongst the tendrils of waves. One red flag means caution. Two means do not enter. When water mirrors sky. The lifeguard’s chair topples in the winds. You ignore it. You did not bring a towel. You did not bring anything. They will find everything you brought scattered along the shore, bread crumbs. Your shorts you rolled. Your watch. Receipts in a ball, the journey of your day, you went there and there and there. And now, here you are, a glimmer about to set. A horizon.
The terror will begin slowly, and then all at once. The mother dolphin falls from the seasky. You are missing.
The old fisherman on the bucket will tell us that when he was gathering his poles, he saw you, and called to you, but you never even turned your head. His voice swallowed before it reached you. He watched you roll your shorts, he watched you methodically take your watch off, he watched you walk slowly towards the growing waves. He could hear the grunts of the sea-mammals in the seasky, as they do when the weather descends on the land, as close to the land as clouds look, as if you could touch them, a rhythm of warning. He watched you walk until no longer visible. He tells us that he didn’t even think twice about you. He is sorry. Time to call the Coast Guard. He says you didn’t dive in, as if that information is a comfort. He scratches his scraggy beard. He says the waves of the landsea raised all day as if summoned by a marionettist. He reels in his line, sets his pole down, struggles against the wind to the dock house to use the phone. Good-bye, Aggs. See you next time.
You made the concerted effort to not think about going into the landsea all day. You tried to go about normality. Drink coffee. Walk around. Say hello to a neighbor. But the landsea seduced you. Even as the sky lowered, and opened, and lowered. Today is the day. See those double red flags. Do not go. Do not enter. A dolphin shadow over your face. Another wail. This mother in a continuous loop in the seasky. Who is going to birth you back into the world?
What will happen when your mother finds that you have been swallowed by the sea? A mother without her calf. Will she feel relief that you are finally somewhere that she can find you all the time? She will stand at her windows with the curtains drawn back, looking out on the street, and fret. Every carlight is you. Dear twinkle, she will think, come back home to me. In the seasky above her, too many sea mammals to enjoy the light. She will remember when she moved you and your sisters to the country and she thought you would dance under every constellation. Carlight. Carlight. She clutches the curtain. You never arrive.
The fisherman says that he called for you so many times, and then forgot. In due time, the Coast Guard, the Dive Team, the State Police, the American Red Cross, all slow. They set up a tent for a dive and recovery. They were hoping you were caught on the sand bar after the waves traveled backwards towards a different shore elsewhere. When the red flags were reduced to other colors, taken down completely. A sunny day. Sea mammals happily dancing and dipping. A rainbow scale of colors. You were not on a sand bar, not the first one, not the second one. The lower they dove, the longer the time went by, the more morose and shaking cold the divers were.
Simultaneously, one road away, a heaving sea mammal body. The mother. People circle around it with faces wrung out, deep creases around eyes and mouths. Girls twist their hair around their fingers, take selfies with the glint of the slick skin quickly drying out. Children run into the landsea, splash and cry. A chorus of isn’t it something? and can you believe it? A human chain from the landsea to the body. Your mother, always the volunteer, at the head of command. Buckets of water passed hand-to-hand. If you spot something on land from the sky, the news says, leave it alone, and contact the proper authorities. But who can watch these majestic creatures die? A little girl clings to her mother’s legs and the mother almost kicks her away, so aggressive the resistance to comfort. Five teenagers, all dressed in black, laugh and make jokes until they are up close, and then they are silent. In the distance, sharks circle. Another warning.
The human chain of water buckets, commanded by your mother, are mostly women, and they are speaking softly in respect of the dying. People lose interest and leave, walking up the muddy road to their cars where they will drive away to their quiet, groomed homes and tell their loved ones of their witnessing. Those that remain continue, methodically, as if in prayer. May all sentient beings be free from suffering, your mother thinks. This is not how this dolphin thought it would die, fallen through the atmosphere, burdened by humans.
Two helicopters appear from east to west, behind each other, and then split away. They are so low they reverberate and shake the eardrums of the human chain. Some women drop their buckets and cover their ears. Your mother instinctively puts the bucket under her arm, the water falling into the dirt, absorbing instantaneously. The women think the helicopters are there to see to the dolphin. The helicopters move farther and farther away from them, lowering inches from the water, so low, the women think, it will land. It does not. It moves quickly back to the sandbars. With the seasky, the helicopters cannot go up too far without clearance. All the women shield their eyes as if it will allow them to see better, but it doesn’t.
One woman says to the others, “They must be looking for something.”
“Or someone,” another says.
Your mother nods in agreement.
Katie Jean Shinkle is the author of three novellas and five chapbooks, most recently Ruination (Spuyten Duyvil 2018), and Rat Queen (Bloof Books 2019). Other prose, poetry, and criticisms can be found in or are forthcoming from Flaunt Magazine, The Georgia Review, Denver Quarterly, Washington Square Review, Harpur Palate, and elsewhere. She is an Assistant Professor of English in the MFA in Creative Writing, Editing, and Publishing at Sam Houston State University.
Photograph by Nathan Dumlao